Writing is, at its core, a solitary endeavor. The writer’s mind is his own, and what comes out of it onto paper belongs solely to him. For the disorganized mind, the puzzle pieces of idea and metaphor often don’t coalesce into meaning and coherence on the page by themselves, and, as a result, there is the inevitable descent into writer’s block and frustration.
This frustration is the reason why the isolated writer with the confused and addled mind full of ideas, who cannot, like Kerouac, make those ideas “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” needs the assistance of a like-minded community of writers. Together, perhaps, these formerly isolated minds can work together to put together the puzzle pieces, make them click and snap together.
I recently discovered such a community. It’s called The People’s Ink, a collective of writers in Portland, Oregon organized and shepherded with pinpoint precision and dedication by Rich. The unique structure of The People’s Ink sets it apart. Group members meet weekly at a frankly fantastic bar with excellent happy hour food that also happens to be the perfect space conducive to intensive hour long critiques of works in progress. Members are corralled into groups of half a dozen people or so. Each group consists of a writer whose work is being critiqued, four or five people critiquing it, and a moderator to keep things on track. There are also groups dedicated to breaking down longer works – submission lengths go from 10,000 words for the shorter “community groups” to 50,000 words for the more dedicated “novel critique groups.”
For an hour each week, then, each group descends into a focused critique of a particular work, geared toward answering questions the author him/herself has about his/her own work. Critique is honest, in-depth, and as free flowing and jovial as the beer coming out of the bar’s taps.
A couple of weeks ago, it came to be my turn to have my work critiqued. I picked a short story I thought was pretty good, a cynically satirical tale about a superhero. The critiques I received were honest, helpful, and gave me just enough of an idea of where to go with the story that I really think I can make something good out of it. I never would have thought of some of the things the members of the group told me.
And the act of critiquing someone else’s work can get the brain bits working, unclog a clogged mind. The energy that flows in these groups is contagious, and makes a writer want to write, and to talk about writing.
Ultimately, then, writing may be, by itself, a solitary endeavor, but writing well doesn’t have to be. With The People’s Ink, I’ve found a place where I can bring the puzzle pieces my brain refuses to put together, and have real, genuine help in forming a coherent picture of my writing.